A Hard Time of It

At breakfast New Year’s morning following the South End’s annual Alcatraz swim, a mutual friend told me she’s having a hard with it. Sorry to say I’m glad she is. I hope she has a hard time with it for a very long time. Like forever.

Even bolters must have a conscience.  Even bolters must know when they’ve hurt someone.

Even bolters must sometimes regret in the deep armored recesses of their dark hearts that they cast off a man who loved them.

Even bolters must fear dying alone.

I’m glad to be leaving her orbit. Her distance, denial, and disassociation are wounding.

I’m not glad to be leaving my life here. Not glad to be leaving Adam. Not glad to be leaving close friends. Not glad to be leaving the South End. Not glad to be leaving Cow Hollow. I’m having a hard time with it.

But I’m glad to be moving back to New England, familiar and new at the same time. I’m not at home Out West.

Yesterday afternoon we went to see Greta Gerwig’s new film Little Women, set largely in what purported to be Concord and the Massachusetts countryside, so beautiful. I’ve many memories in those towns and hills of the Berkshires. I had a life there, too. The architecture looks right to me, the way California houses however elegant never have. The golden hills have never sparked joy the way the Hudson flowing past Midwood does, with the blue Catskills in the distance. Or cresting Silver Mountain Road, with the Southern Berkshires meeting the Hudson Valley in the distance. Or the Maine coast cut out of rocks and pines and shingled houses.

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I’ve experienced two romantic kisses in my life—kisses that filled my entire body with bliss, kisses I remember, will always remember. Kisses that lifted me from my body. Out of the thousands of kisses I’ve given and received these two remain etched in gold.

One on a cold snowy December night in front of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. One on a warm spring evening in front of the Balboa Café on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. Many, many years apart. One marked an end, one a beginning.

I think of that night in the Berkshires, when love and fear gripped me equally, when opportunity opened and closed in a kiss as tender and sweet as d’Yquem. I think what might have been had I been braver;  I think because it reminds me of her of the loveliest of love poems by Kenneth Rexroth, set on a New England afternoon in another season:

We lie here in the bee filled, ruinous

Orchard of a decayed New England farm,

Summer in our hair, and the smell

Of summer in our twined bodies,

Summer in our mouths, and summer

In the luminous, fragmentary words

Of this dead Greek woman.

Stop reading. Lean back. Give me your mouth.

Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.

You move against me like a wave

That moves in sleep.

Your body spreads across my brain

Like a bird filled summer;

Not like a body, not like a separate thing,

But like a nimbus that hovers

Over every other thing in all the world.

Lean back. You are beautiful,

As beautiful as the folding

Of your hands in sleep.

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The second kiss opened and blossomed. There were summers, and autumn afternoons. Our hands did fold in sleep.

 

         See. The sun has fallen away.

Now there are amber

Long lights on the shattered

Boles of the ancient apple trees.

Our bodies move to each other

As bodies move in sleep;

At once filled and exhausted,

As the summer moves to autumn,

As we, with Sappho, move towards death.

My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot

Autumn of your uncoiled hair.

Your body moves in my arms

On the verge of sleep;

And it is as though I held

In my arms the bird filled

Evening sky of summer.

I wonder if she remembers, too.

Maybe I should have married those women. Maybe those two kisses ought to have been a warning, a signal signifying how a romance begins. And if it doesn’t, don’t go there.

It didn’t go there.

I leave San Francisco tomorrow. This has been my last full day living in California. I had lunch with Josh, and dinner with Kevin—two close friends, both friends for life. In between I walked around the city, thinking about being new here eleven and a half years ago. Thinking this was where I would stay.

Life didn’t turn out that way.

It’s okay.

The winter will move to spring in a different place. There will be snow, then sunshine.

She will fade. She will never disappear.

Version 2

Ordinary Tragedy

I’m stunned by the normalization of the most dire, most tragic, aspects of life. Things that make me blanche, make me cry, wrapped up in all that’s ordinary. Everyday occurrences happening all the time. To people everywhere.

Today I received from her attorney’s office two documents “for my records.”  A Declaration for Default or Uncontested Dissolution” of our marriage, and its accompanying “Request to Enter Default.” Just pieces of paper, or rather their digital versions, signed by her. She signed away our marriage. And, no I did not contest. Why contest the inevitable. Why add time, expense, and agony to heartbreak? In California only one party in a marriage is needed to legally end it. It’s no different than in Sharia law when all a husband has to do is say three times “I divorce you.” Much quicker, less expensive. The pain in the heart over in a moment of shock.

That’s what she did. She whose name—my wife’s name, the name of the woman I married, the woman I loved—whose name I can’t write unless I want to receive another threatening cease and desist order from her attorney. No name, no wedding photos. Identity elimination. Nothing to connect her to me. She was never connected to me. It’s an apt metaphor for our marriage. No names, no photos. Erasure.

I was wished well on this painful journey.

It’s all so ordinary.

I go with my son to his chemotherapy infusions every other Friday. Normal hospital procedure. Many people being infused with lethal chemicals. The normalization of cancer. I am chipper, and positive, and my heart is bleeding. I am there for him; we will get through this. It matters what’s happening. If I could trade places, let it be me not him, I would in an instant.

He is strong; he will be strong.

That she doesn’t ask how’s he doing, your son, your beautiful son, is testament to her disassociation, her own self-protection more important than caring, than compassion. It was always more important. Compassion withheld.

Of course she feels vulnerable. Of course she’s withdrawn. Of course she can’t speak to me, see me, acknowledge me. Of course she can only communicate by way of her attorney. It’s all so ordinary, the way she is, has always been, the way she wound up being.

I can almost forgive her. If it wasn’t so ordinary, expected, and sad. If it didn’t break my heart.

God help any man who thinks he might get close to her. Closeness spells the end. Closeness triggers leaving. That she could not accept the great blanket of my affection, that she found it invasive, is all on her. What she told me I won’t repeat. Why bother repeating her words when she only denies her words, says they misrepresent. It must be hard being her.

I loved her. I gave her my love. I gave her all of me, and all of me was too much. I was made to feel that to want togetherness, to want to be a married couple in spirit and practice, as well as on paper, was some kind of neurosis—she after all the brain specialist. All my problem.

Never call me your wife, it implies I’m your property.

Never call me your wife.

Never call me by my name.

Never call me.

Cold bed. Cold heart. Cold comfort.

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Lifelines

It’s the end of the year, the end of the decade, and the end of my time in San Francisco.

The past year hasn’t been the best, with two unanticipated and unwanted life situations hurling major personal dislocation and stricken fatherly worry: my wife’s decision to end our marriage and my youngest son’s cancer diagnosis.

The past decade, and my time in California being nearly the same—I moved to San Francisco in mid-2008– has been as Life Experience goes a significant chapter.

Charles Dickens said better than I can:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

My eyes fill up with tears, I don’t know why. These were after all, in part, the best of times.

I discovered love at first sight, shot straight in the heart by Cupid’s arrow. Never before or since—maybe only once in a lifetime. Candles don’t burn brightly forever.

I made lifelong friends. I found my best friend. He will remain so.

I married a woman I loved. That she ended our marriage doesn’t take away the loveliness of the beginning.

The world of open water swimming opened up to me.

I joined the South End Rowing Club and found a new community. They, too, will remain if distantly.

My Cow Hollow men’s group has been a foundation and source of much joy. I will return.

I loved a sweet little dog. He’s gone from me, but held dear.

I created a new career in teaching, taking me to a future that hadn’t existed before.

Lifelines.

It seems remarkable that all of this happened in one decade long lifespan. Many people never experience all of this in their entire lives.

One time, to know that it’s real.
One time, to know how it feels.
That’s all.

It was an epoch of belief, it was an epoch of incredulity. I believed in love. It was real. I knew how it felt. Two different romantic loves. One might have lasted, one should have lasted. Neither did.

What if it hurts, what then?
What do we do, what do you say?
Don’t throw your lifeline away

Do I still believe in love?

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Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of the English Language, defines love five ways:

  1. To regard with passionate affection, as that of one sex to the other.
  2. To regard with the affection of a friend.
  3. To regard with parental tenderness.
  4. To be pleased with.
  5. To regard with reverent unwillingness to offend.

I love my sons with deep parental tenderness. I have a few friends I hold close in loving affection. I love to read, to swim, to paint, to impart to my students what I’ve learned in my life. There are many I am unwilling to offend.

Do I dare risk passionate affection again? Loving commitment?

Is heartbreak too steep a price to pay? Does love always have to end, for me?

Don’t throw your lifeline away

One time, just once in my life.
Yeah one time, to know it can’t happen twice.
One shot on a clear blue sky.
One look, I see the reasons why you cared.

One chance to get back to the point where everything starts.
One chance to keep it together,
Things fall apart.

There’s a future that doesn’t yet exist for me. I can’t pull the past into that future.

So, yes, the risk is OK.

Let what life brings come.

What if we do, what now?
What do you say, how do I know?
Don’t let your lifeline go.

Don’t let your lifeline go.

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Spear-carrier in someone else’s opera

“When you can recognize a person’s story as their story, you begin to have access to their version of the story, so that you’re not stuck with, you don’t have to resign yourself to, their version of the story.”

“You can’t ask questions like ‘True?’ about people’s stories. There’s no such thing as ‘true stories.’ A story’s a story. People get into trouble in life because they start believing their stories. Even worse, you start believing someone else’s story—makes you a spear-carrier in someone else’s opera. This is not a good way to live.”                                  Werner Erhard

 

What happened: we got married. I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. There was no hesitation: yes, I will marry you. It was an afternoon in the early spring of 2014. We were on the bed talking about things and I think she asked me if I could imagine living with her, in her house. I said, yes, and then asked “Will you marry me?” She said yes. We chose to get married.

As proposals, and acceptances, go, it was pretty cut and dry. There wasn’t any romance to it. I don’t think we kissed one another, embraced, definitely didn’t make love. We talked about the practicalities: health insurance, protecting assets with a prenuptial agreement, dates for the wedding. Then the day went on as any other day at home.

What happened? We got married. Then there’s this whole story. And they’re distinct from one another. Mostly our stories are constituted by our reasons. We live the kind of life that people would have if they lived out of a story.

My wife’s story is about leaving. She was already always leaving. Her story about leaving owned her. She left her childhood, her home, her family, her husbands, her lovers. Years and years and years of leaving. She was always already leaving. Oh, she had reasons. And her reasons confirmed that her story was the true story. She believed her reasons and her story and those reasons and the story she told herself validated her leaving.

Her story left no clearing to have a new possibility in her life. Her future was constituted by her past, and her past was always already leaving. Its obviousness was apparent to anyone who looked closely. That’s why so many of her friends, afterwards, told me that was her history. She left her men. The two who immediately preceded me, the two between husband number two and husband number three, perplexed many. One I know; one I don’t. Both, I’m told, were hurt by her leaving. The one man I know, and like, has only very recently opened up to me. His polite reserve prevented him from ever saying anything while my wife and I were together. It wouldn’t have been appropriate. Or kind.

Three times in my life I have confused an interesting, compelling story with an interesting, compelling person. One would think I might have learned the difference, even the hard way. But that’s the danger of stories. Stories captivate the listener as they imprison the teller.

Then, as Werner warned, you become a spear-carrier in someone else’s opera. Tragic opera.

And sometimes the spear-carrier gets speared in the story.

It’s bloody, and bloody awful.

 

What Would Completion Look Like?

 

As the year draws to a close, this year of divorce, dislocation, sickness, surgery, and global malaise, what would completeness look like? What would complete the conversation with her, the woman I loved and who ended our marriage? What words might be said? Setting all leftover rancor, bitterness, and the nasty threatening cease and desist order aside, what communication remains that would end the year if not in joy and happiness, at least not in sorrow and regret?

Our experience of things, of the world and relationships and even love, exists in language. When language is absent, all that’s left are emotions, our internal states disconnected from what’s actually happening, drawing on the past, and pulling that past into the present. There can be no future lived in a new possibility when there is no language to declare the way forward. There’s only stalemate, and all the old regrets. It’s like leaving a brick wall behind.

I don’t know what we would say to one another. That, yes, we did love one another once? That we were sorry our marriage ended this way? “I’m sorry our marriage has ended this way” was the last thing she said to me, standing in the living room, moments before she walked out the door and out of my life forever. I believe she was sorry. Perhaps no more, now that the dissociation is total, that the only communication from her arrives in lawyer’s letters. (She had only to call and ask. Talk…words.)

All that I might want to say I have written. And I would no longer want to say these things that I have written. The past needs to be put in the past.

But some words, maybe even kind words, need to be said for there to be some kind of completion to this marriage ending. She told me many times in our final months together, those strange painful months of packing up and moving out when nothing was said of any consequence, that she had to withhold compassion because it was what I wanted. I never said I wanted her to be compassionate but of course I did. I would have been grateful for any table scrap of kindness. And maybe she was right: to have been kind to me might have given me false hope that there was a glimmer of salvation.

No, those words need not be said now. No rehashing, no rationales, no what if’s, maybe’s, might have beens.

But something. To part, finally, these four months after my moving out, with no words, no language, no looking into one another’s eyes, maybe even a smile of recognition, is sad, deeply sad. To remember the person who more than five years ago was the light of my life. To say goodbye. No I’m sorry’s.

Just goodbye and good luck.

It would be nice.

It would be complete.

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Silence is never golden

Of all the things I find unfathomable about my wife’s decision to end our marriage—and there are many incomprehensible things—all these many months since she first told me she no longer loved me—it is her refusal to speak to me, now even to acknowledge my presence. I have become a ghost in the corner. She told me once during the dissolving of our marriage that she was a better friend than a partner. This has turned out like much else not to be true. She could no longer find a way to be a partner, and now isn’t a friend. Friends talk to one another.

I saw my wife last night at our South End Rowing Club’s holiday party. “Saw” is the operative word, because she didn’t acknowledge me, or say hello, or ask after my son Adam’s health. Her disassociation is complete. It is purposeful, and intentionally hurtful. She knows and finds some kind of perverse satisfaction withholding communication. It’s because I want it that she withholds it. It’s the one power she retains. She held all the cards, played them, and now that the game is over has shut down the gaming hall. Her gamble is complete. She won. Let us hope it’s not a Pyrrhic victory—though as she once said to me that she was destined to die a lonely old woman.

It didn’t have to be so. And perhaps she’ll find yet another man to be with, briefly. There have been many–all without the foreknowledge of her expiration date.

She also said to me months ago that she couldn’t talk to me because I write about our conversations. If she talked to me maybe I would not have to write about it; maybe I would know and not obsess. Genuine communication—a practice we were never good achieving—would resolve so many questions, would make things complete. Completion wasn’t her goal; only ending.

Thinking about how she’s behaving, I have to ask myself the question, why do I care? What did I expect would happen? Why did I harbor any misguided illusion that she might turn out to be genuine, to be a warm, compassionate woman? It was my fantasy, what I wanted so passionately to be so, when it was so evidently not so. Ever. The trauma in her life prevented it. Her default attitude is distrust, especially men, and people in general. So when I failed to perform to her expectations, the thin veneer of trust vanished. She called me untrustworthy. In truth, there was no trust from the beginning.

I didn’t expect to be disappeared.

I know, now, that my decision to move is beyond doubt the right decision. Continuing to share with my wife the life I created here, so much of it with her, is emotionally impossible. Yes, my emotions are internal states that I inflict on what’s happening. Putting them away, far back in the past drawer, will be so much easier on the other side of the country.

I imagine she’ll be grateful, too. She has told me many times that she is not the cause of anything I’m feeling, or decisions I’m making; that these emotions, these decisions are mine alone. And they are. Yet to deny being the cause in the matter, the match that lit the fire, is yet more evidence of her disassociation—from me, from her life, from life. It’s a denial of possibility, a wall constructed to block out any light that might, just might, shine in.

I walked out of her house on September 1st and her life returned to how it had been before she ever met me—but for five years past and the specter of Niland still haunting our common pathways. Very soon that specter will be gone, and she can be free of being purposefully furtive, evasive, avoiding the places I might show up, not “seeing” me when I’m there.

She wounded me, and has found a way to twist the knife. She knows how much this causes me despair. I doubt it makes her happy.

Moving will be my healing. I sacrifice much leaving the life I have created here, but good friends will remain good friends, and new places and people will come to replace the old ones. She cannot take these things away from me. She took one kind of life away from me, but not my actual, as-lived way of being who I am. I realize I am more who I am without her. I had hoped to be more of who I am with her.

In two weeks it will be Christmas, a holiday my wife hates on so many levels, and did everything within the limits of family acceptability to ignore. She permitted a celebration, one dinner, with our children and sometimes a friend. She very reluctantly participated in gift giving. She disliked that I enjoyed Christmas, enjoyed giving gifts. Among the reasons she gave to end our marriage was that I spent money on Christmas gifts for her, and my sons, when I was otherwise short on contributions. I think my wife did try to make the holiday acceptable–she liked giving us experiences instead of things–but at base Christmas was a bone that stuck in her throat. And she resented it.

Will Christmas come this year to her with any memories of our Christmas dinners past, when together with our children and friends we feasted on the elaborate labor of love dinner I prepared, setting the table with all the “good” china and silver, an orchestrated holiday meal meant to surpass the year before? Did she enjoy those times, or see them as an obligation she couldn’t avoid? I know she saw my enthusiasm as an indulgence, something to endure rather than be delighted.

This being Christmas I end this very last piece I will ever write about my marriage to this woman, a marriage I do not regret but for all the things I failed to see, with my sadness over one Christmas gift delivered a year late. It was promised, and after much trial and a lot of error, finally accomplished. I know it was received, opened, and the packaging discarded. Yet when I asked whether this package had been received, more than a week after it was delivered and verified by the PO, I was told no. I don’t know why she would lie to me.

It’s unfathomable, and sad. It tells me something I don’t want to know.

Time to move, move on. Onward and upward!

A clearing

What do you do with information you would rather not know?

Information so startlingly in opposition to what you have been led to believe that it throws into stark relief everything else you once thought you understood, about another person: a person who defines herself as a rock of integrity; truth and honesty being the hallmarks of her self-professed identity.

What do you do when you know she lied to you? That when asked a question that only required a yes or no, she said no when the truth was yes; to not acknowledge the receipt of a debt repaid, however emotion laden. Or unwanted.

I would have never expected it. Now, knowing it, I wish I didn’t know. I may not have liked many of the things she said to me, but I never assumed any of those things was a lie.

No greeting. No inquiring after Adam’s health. Perfunctory mail delivery. Then no, when the truth was yes.

I was apprehensive seeing her. I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t expect this. Perhaps the time wasn’t right to say anything. Perhaps the place wasn’t right, the people there not right. Time could have been made if anything was needing to be said, wanting to be said. Instead, she was awkward, furtive, expressionless, saying as few words as possible, and only the no to my question. She could not have tried harder to not connect, to not acknowledge, to negate, to suppress any feelings of any description.

What she left behind was smallness: smallness of stature, smallness of character. Not the person I married those five years ago. Not the person I loved.

Maybe that was her intention: give him no satisfaction, no compassion. Give him nothing but his mail. It would not have been the first time.

Information I now know, and wish I didn’t know. I know now that I loved an image of someone who wasn’t there, an idea that lived in my head, and in my heart for a while.

I am sad, for both of us. But my sadness is with newly open eyes about a person I hardly knew.

My sadness is an opening–a clearing beyond the closed door of the past.

I’m sorry, I loved you.

I’m sorry, I loved you. I’m sorry I loved you. The comma changes everything. Sorry for you, sorry for me.

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It’s Thanksgiving 2019. I’m having dinner with Adam and Rachel, and Rachel’s family at her parent’s house. It’s been a tradition for ten years, before I was married, with my wife, and now without her.   In years past, the family gathered at Rachel’s grandparents, her father’s parents, at their marvelous house in Lafayette. Her grandmother Nancy loved holidays—all holidays and especially Thanksgiving. Nancy died this past September, only a few weeks after Adam’s lymphoma diagnosis. It was not unexpected. She had been slowly failing from liver cancer for more than two years, holding on far longer than her doctors predicted. Still, it will be sad this year without her. And sad without my wife.

Will she think of it, too?

We have endured so much change since last Thanksgiving. I was happy then. Yet, on our 4th anniversary the month before, my wife told me she was sorry our marriage hadn’t turned out the way we both had hoped. I said I wasn’t unhappy. That wasn’t entirely true. She said to me in the car as we drove to have an anniversary dinner at Greens, “you’re a good man.” I heard the past sad tense but remained silent.

I should have known then that the end, for her, had come.

I’m sorry, I loved you. I knew what was then unspoken, but couldn’t admit that things couldn’t change, that closeness might come again, intimacy, touching, saying what needed to be said. I wanted it so dearly. I thought there was hope, closer times ahead.

I’m sorry, I loved you.

Thanksgiving is a day to be grateful. Give thanks. Be with our families, the people we love. On past Thanksgivings with my wife I began the day with the annual South End Thanksgiving Alcatraz swim. I was so pleased to share this, even when she wasn’t swimming. My most memorable Alcatraz—a swim I don’t like very much—was four years ago very early on a cold clear dark morning when the entire crossing was in moonlight. It was magical. Being married to my wife, for a while, was magical.

I’m grateful to be with Adam today, that his early treatment results are positive. The chemicals are working, the tumors undetectable. I would trade my life for him to be well. If it only worked that way.

I’m grateful for Sam and David, and their families. Maybe someday there will be a Thanksgiving when we’re all together. Still, there’s a broken branch even then.

I envy families who have kept it all together. My wife always told me we create our own families who may or may not have a biological bond. I guess I’ve never had that, having only ever conceived of my family as people I’m related to one way or another.

I wonder if she remembers our Thanksgivings together. Of course she remembers, what I mean is with fondness—or just an obligation she couldn’t easily avoid. Thanksgiving last year must have been more poignant than I realized, since she knew then she would ask me to leave. There are no photos of us.

I’m sorry, I loved you. I’m sorry, I think too much about all of this. Yesterday signing all ten marriage dissolution documents at my wife’s attorney’s office my heart beat too quickly, too deeply. The finality of the circumstance hit hard. Ironic the signing occurred the day before the day of giving thanks. Like the irony of February 9th, the dreaded 9th of February, doubly ironic being Bobby Roper’s memorial. Cold water mixed with sadness mixed with heartbreak: a tragic cocktail. I don’t think the irony occurred to her.

For the last three years of our marriage she never let me see her naked, even in bed, the woman who would swim in her birthday suit on her birthday at the South End, who placed little to no value on propriety. Signs I saw, and kept inside.

Good times, sad times.

I’m sorry I loved you.